Monday, May 10, 2010

Ode to a Nightingale

When you study the history of science you find out things you might not want to know. What you find out makes it difficult to believe the things everyone around you believes. Because people believe a lot of things and you have learned that most of what people believe, in any time period, in any place, is a kind of nonsense.

Look. After germ theory was very well discovered, explained, and used to change real outcomes in the real world, it took a good four decades to convince people. Some of the most trenchant deniers were the most educated people. We can look back now and see.

Maybe you think doctors and nurses would all say: "Thank goodness, finally, something that actually works!" Instead, the new theory felt so threatening to everything these people had spent their lives doing, teaching, writing, and believing, that it was too painful to turn away from all the details of the medical world before bacteriology. The world just had to wait for them to die off. Florence Nightingale radically changed the world through a belief in cleanliness and order, through her work, for the first time in the history of history, armies did not lose more men to sickness and infection than to sheer physical damage. Yet when germ theory came around she denied it. For decades. Died still wittily deriding the idea.

The role of self interest as a real loud voice at the table of truth, even in these most obvious examples, goes unnoticed by the person trying to figure out the world (isn't everyone living in the world trying to figure it out?).

Think about the things we have invested in too much to reconsider. Consider first the cases in which we are right to do this. We have invested a great deal in learning to use the English language. Whether or not the writing on the wall is in Chinese, it makes good sense for us to stick with what we’ve got. There are cases where we should start changing and are ready to do so: We’ve got a lot invested in books, and we are trying to step back and see what changes might be bearable. Oil. Big agriculture. Those of us interested in reconceiving the world do manage to do so in some impressive ways, no question.

Still, it is worth saying clearly. There are things we believe that are not true. There are ways we behave that are holdovers: We keep jumping over where there used to be a pothole.

After a while, a person asks her or himself, Where is different? Where is life? And in those moments it is useful to remember that one answer is: To the right of where you always go. Under the puddle into which you do not want to step, and then to the left. Where you are strong, instead try weakness. It can be salutary to self-suggest that everything youve saids been sort of wrong.

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